by Dr. George A. Pruitt
Long before I began my 35-year tenure as a university president, I had an intellectual curiosity about the variables and attributes that differentiated effective presidents from those who were less successful. The most relevant book on the subject is “The Effective College President” by James Fisher, Martha Tack, and Karen Wheeler. In addition to my years of service in executive leadership positions in higher education, I was also active in accreditation, having chaired the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE). I also served as a board member of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI). Accreditors examine the strengths and deficits of colleges and universities including the quality of their leadership. My observation about the subject can be found in “From Protest to President: A Social Justice Journey Through the Emergence of Adult Education and the Birth of Distance Learning” published by Rutgers University Press.
Before discussing a topic, it is useful to define it. My definition of effectiveness is as follows:
An effective presidency occurs when an individual assumes office, creates and articulates a vision and coherent agenda for advancing the institution in fulfilling its mission, successfully executes that agenda, and achieves recognizable and measurable progress. After accomplishing these results, they leave under their own terms, usually after at least seven to ten years in office, with the institution in demonstrably better and stronger condition than when they arrived.
If you accept my definition, the inescapable conclusion is that many college and university presidents would not be considered effective. In a 2023 study, the American Council on Education found that the average tenure of an American college president is 5.9 years. The is the shortest it’s ever been, and the turnover is the highest.
From the research findings in Fisher’s book and my own experience with respected colleagues, the effective presidents I have observed have the following attributes:
Vision, emotional intelligence, willingness to provoke, intellectual talent, strong values, high standards, experience, excellent communication and interpersonal skills, and a demonstrated capacity to execute.
Advertisements for brokerage services frequently carry the disclaimer “past performance is not a guarantee of future results.” While that may be true of investment products, it is not true in searching for presidential leadership. The best predictor of future results is absolutely past performance! It is particularly unsettling when a board hires a president who had a troubled former presidency. I understand how it happens. There was one instance at a university where I served as a board member. We thought we had done everything right. We had a thoughtful, experienced, and committed search committee, the assistance of a reputable search firm, and a candidate who performed well in the interviews with the committee and the board. The references were glowing, and the candidate was the unanimous choice of the board. The person had a prior turbulent presidency, but that was explained away by both the search firm and the candidate. The offer was made and accepted. When the appointment was announced, I began receiving uncomfortable looks from colleagues who knew the candidate. Friends expressed concern and advised caution. The person’s presidency was a disaster and terminated after two years. The good news is that when it was apparent to both the new president and the board that we had made a mistake, the board acted decisively and cut its losses. Many boards do not do that and allow the mistake to fester and do serious harm to the institution.
Higher education succession is deeply flawed. We don’t groom strong and effective leaders internally for the top job to get known quantities with proven, successful leadership qualities. We fail to assess the candidate’s compatibility with the institution’s mission and culture. The vetting process for outside candidates is hopelessly weak. People don’t share accurate negative critiques of candidates. Sometimes it’s because they are afraid of getting sued, don’t want to be included in a controversy, or they want to get rid of flawed colleagues by shipping them off to another school. Boards chase away good potential candidates by failing to protect their confidentiality in the search process or put them through a cattle call, subjecting them to a gauntlet of public performances like dogs at a kennel club show. Other boards stack the search committee with internal special interest: faculty, staff, alumni, all of whom are looking for someone who will be compliant with their priorities instead of providing vigorous leadership and evolution for a relevant future.
We know how to find competent, visionary, effective presidents because we still do it. It is not true that current conditions are so difficult that the challenges to leadership are unsurmountable. The proof is that even in the current polarized society and toxic political environment, some institutions are thriving while others are floundering. The differentiator is not the size of the endowment, or the demographics of the students, or the higher education marketplace. It is the effectiveness of the president. Boards too often settle for the best candidate in the applicant pool even though the person falls below the expectations the board has for the position. To find the right president, don’t settle. Keep searching until you get it right.